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Excessive Sleepiness and Workplace Accidents

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Eric Suni

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Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Abhinav Singh

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If you feel that you’re not getting enough sleep at night, and are overly tired during the day, you’re not alone. Adults are supposed to get between seven and nine hours of sleep; however, the CDC reports that 35% of Americans get less than the necessary seven hours. Insufficient sleep is one major cause of excessive daytime sleepiness, which is thought to affect up to 18% of the U.S. population.

This sort of sleep deprivation and daytime fatigue can lead to serious consequences both personally and professionally. A lack of sleep impacts both physical and mental health. People who sleep poorly are at higher risk for high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and obesity. They are also at risk for developing anxiety and depression.

In the workplace, excessive sleepiness can greatly increase the likelihood of a workplace accident, which can result in injury and even death. Sleep deprivation also has a significant impact on other aspects of job performance, including productivity, task management, and meeting goals.

What Is the Relationship Between Sleep Deprivation and Workplace Accidents?

There is overwhelming evidence demonstrating that sleep deprivation leads to workplace accidents. Overly sleepy employees are 70% more likely to be involved in workplace accidents than colleagues who are not sleep-deprived. Long work hours paired with poor sleep quality can also contribute to a higher risk of workplace injury. Workers with insomnia are much more likely to have work-related accidents than those who do not have sleep disorders.

These workplace accidents can have dire consequences. In a Swedish study of over 50,000 workers, those who self-reported disturbed sleep were twice as likely to die in an accident related to the workplace.

Why Does Sleep Deprivation Cause Workplace Accidents?

Sleep deprivation leads to cognitive impairment. It degrades cognitive processing, affecting everything from memory to reflexes. With less sleep, your reaction time slows. This means you make decisions less quickly and accurately. You’re also more likely to misjudge your own abilities and take unwise risks. As a result, excessive sleepiness can lead to consequential errors and accidents that gravely impact the workplace.

Industries Where Sleepiness Impacts Safety

In many industries, a lack of sleep is an enormous safety issue. Sleep deprivation in pilots, truck drivers, shift workers, and medical residents, for instance, leads to an increased risk of dangerous errors near misses.

Sleep-deprived workers who drive as a part of their job are particularly in danger of drowsy driving, which can also have serious consequences. Drivers who get six hours of sleep or less are 33% more likely to have an accident on the road, compared to those who get seven or eight hours of sleep. Driving while sleep-deprived has the same or worse impact as driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%. For comparison, the federal legal BAC while driving in the United States is .08%, and many states have lower limits.

Healthcare workers are also at risk of drowsiness impacting their work, especially because they tend to work long shifts or work overnight. A study of 100 nurses revealed that cognitive performance was significantly impaired in night shift workers demonstrating, for instance, that nurses working the night shift made 32% more mathematical errors than nurses working the day shift. This was attributed to poor sleep quality and decreased alertness.

    Stories of Workplace Accidents Caused by Sleepiness

    Several infamous workplace accidents were directly and indirectly caused by excessive sleepiness or sleep deprivation.

    • Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant. In 1979, the worst commercial nuclear plant incident in the history of the United States occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant in Pennsylvania. The incident occurred when shift workers working between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m failed to recognize a serious change that nearly resulted in the meltdown of the nuclear reactor later that day.
    • Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. The 1986 catastrophe at the Chernobyl nuclear plant began at 1:23 a.m. because of human error. It was later found that the operators responsible were working on too little sleep.
    • Other Nuclear Plants. Other nuclear plants have histories of failures caused in part by sleepiness. In 2002, the Davis-Besse Reactor near Oak Harbor, Ohio went into shutdown at 1:35 a.m., and in 1978, the Rancho Seco nuclear reactor near Sacramento, California lost power to the control system at 4:14 a.m.
    • Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Excessive work hours and sleep deprivation were major contributing factors to the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, which led to the 1989 oil spill in Prince William Sound.
    • Space Shuttle Challenger Explosion. Because of a lack of sleep and sleep-deprived shiftwork, poor judgments were made when launching the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1986. According to reports, crucial managers had been working since 1 a.m. the day of the explosion, and they slept less than two hours the previous night.
    • Air India Express Flight 812. In 2010, an Air India Boeing 737 crashed in southern India, killing 158 people on board. According to the official inquiry, the pilot had been asleep for nearly three hours of the flight and woke disoriented just before the landing at 6:30 a.m. local time.

    What Other Issues Does Sleep Deprivation Cause in the Workplace?

    In addition to workplace accidents resulting in injury or death, a number of other issues can arise in the workplace due to sleep deprivation.

    • Time off. Every year, the United States loses 1.23 million working days due to insufficient sleep. Sleep-deprived workers are twice as likely to miss work as their soundly-sleeping peers.
    • Change in mood. Without sufficient sleep, people can become irritable, easily frustrated, anxious, and even depressed. These changes can lead to poor communication or team difficulties.
    • Decreased performance. Sleep-deprived employees have more difficulty performing in the workplace. They also have decreased concentration compared to their peers. This can impact both individual and group performance.
    • Financial costs. These productivity and missed work costs add up. In 2015, it is estimated that sleep deprivation-related losses cost the United States between $280 billion and $411 billion, or between 1.56 to 2.28 percent of the country’s GDP.

    Both inside and outside of the workplace, sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality have adverse effects on overall physical and mental health. Education on sleep and attention to sleep hygiene are crucial steps to improving sleep, bettering health, and promoting safety in and out of the workplace.

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    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Eric Suni

    Staff Writer

    Eric Suni has over a decade of experience as a science writer and was previously an information specialist for the National Cancer Institute.

    author
    Dr. Abhinav Singh

    Sleep Physician

    MD

    Dr. Singh is the Medical Director of the Indiana Sleep Center. His research and clinical practice focuses on the entire myriad of sleep disorders.

    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Eric Suni

    Staff Writer

    Eric Suni has over a decade of experience as a science writer and was previously an information specialist for the National Cancer Institute.

    author
    Dr. Abhinav Singh

    Sleep Physician

    MD

    Dr. Singh is the Medical Director of the Indiana Sleep Center. His research and clinical practice focuses on the entire myriad of sleep disorders.